Summit County transportation projects hang in balance as lawmakers weigh bill
A bill that would seek to address a $9 billion transportation funding gap got a facelift in Colorado’s Republican-controlled Senate on Tuesday, clearing the chamber’s Transportation Committee with amendments that offset a 0.12 percent cut to a proposed sales tax increase with a $100 million annual transfer from the general fund.
The bill still needs to clear two more committees and a floor vote, but the changes would set up tricky negotiations with the Democratic-controlled House, which had resisted calls to use existing revenues to shore up the state’s ailing infrastructure in its version of the bill.
The Senate amendments also adjusted how the annual $700 million in revenues would be allocated, with a greater share going directly to local governments and half as much going to a multimodal transportation fund that would provide grants for alternative transportation.
Rather than the fixed $375 million proposed by the House, the Senate version would allocate 41.2 percent of revenues to the Colorado Department of Transportation and 58.8 percent, or an added $34 million, to municipalities and counties.
That money could go toward an extensive wish list of transportation improvements in Summit County, from traffic choke points on Interstate 70 to repairs for aging county roads.
“We have a lot of needs and a lot of major priorities in Summit County,” said County Commissioner Dan Gibbs. “A lot of our workforce housing and enhancements we need to make would require more transportation funding.”
In an email, county public works director Tom Gosiorowski identified at least nine roads and highway exits in need of repair or enhancements, including Baldy Road, Swan Mountain Road and Boreas Pass Road. All of those and more, he noted, have been deteriorating due to lack of maintenance.
In addition to planned CDOT improvements to I-70, the money could also be used for joint projects with the agency and local governments. In Summit, there are a number of such opportunities in the pipeline, including the “gap three” project, which would widen the stretch of Highway 9 between the St. Anthony Summit Medical Center and Frisco’s Main Street to four lanes.
Another currently unfunded priority for CDOT is an upgrade to I-70 exit 203 in Frisco, which suffers major congestion problems during peak traffic times that town, county and Colorado State Patrol officials have identified as a growing safety concern.
CDOT is also mulling a possible wildlife corridor on State Highway 91 at Fremont Pass, Frisco town manager Randy Ready said, although such a project would be very unlikely unless the Legislature passes a state funding bill — and voters approve it in November.
But whether or not the divided Legislature will be able to produce a bill is still unclear, particularly with the Senate’s current plan to include general fund revenues in the mix.
“That could kill the proposal,” said Gibbs, a Democrat who has formerly served in the Colorado House. “Without knowing where the money will come from, that’s a huge issue to grapple with, and it may be a deal-killer for folks.”
If the Senate bill passes through the chamber, it would go to a conference committee with the House to iron out differences between the two versions.
Lawmakers at the statehouse were guardedly optimistic that the two chambers could successfully negotiate the politically divisive questions over tax increases and budget cuts.
“The people of the state of Colorado want something done on transportation, and many of us have tried for years but not been able to do (anything),” said Senator Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulfur Springs, whose district includes Summit County. He serves on the Transportation Committee and provided a swing vote in support of the amendments.
“I think if we can get it to (conference committee) we’ll worry about that then,” he said. “I think we will come to a compromise, but I don’t know what exactly that will look like.”
The Senate bill would still need to clear the finance and appropriations committees before a final vote, and many changes could still be made. But Colorado Senate Republican spokesman Sean Paige indicated that a general fund transfer would likely be a part of any final Senate bill.
“The feeling among Republicans — but not exclusively Republicans — was we have a nearly $30 billion budget, so why can’t we put more existing revenues in the pot?” he said. “Yes, it’s going to force a shift in priorities, but that’s one of the reasons we’re in the hole. Transportation hasn’t been a priority, and it’s gotten squeezed out.”
House Transportation and Energy Committee Chair Diane Mitsch Bush, D-Steamboat Springs, said she was confident the two chambers could work together given the pressing importance of the issue to so many Coloradans — regardless of their party affiliation.
Still, she acknowledged that finding a way to fund a $2 billion expenditure over 20 years while maintaining a balanced budget could be tricky.
“At first glance, there are very significant differences, so we’ll have to see what we can come up with here,” she said. “What I definitely don’t want to do is take money from education or hospitals.”
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